In March, a column by Frank Bruni in the New York Times criticized how students at some colleges shut down controversial speakers instead of allowing them to talk. Only by engaging opposing viewpoints, he wrote, do we learn enough to conclude which assertions are wrong — and why.
In Ashley Shelby’s debut novel, “South Pole Station,” residents of Antarctica’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station grapple with what happens when being “right” becomes a steamroller, whether the issue is carbon or spaghetti carbonara.
Sal, a scientist studying the universe’s origin, has reams of data showing how human activity accelerates climate change. Yet he persists in sabotaging researcher Frank Pavano, a climate change denier.
This plotline is mirrored on the non-scientific side of the station. Pearl, a new cook, is far more skilled than head cook Bonnie. Yet Pearl, instead of letting her food speak for itself, much less collaborating, stealthily destroys Bonnie’s cookbooks — and eventually Bonnie.
Set in the vast yet claustrophobic reality of Antarctica, the novel’s first delight is in its vivid depiction of sub-zero life, thanks in part to Shelby’s sister once working at Pole. All are conscious that they’re considered slightly insane to be there, and that they are reliant on each other for survival.
The second delight is the clear message that science is not belief. It’s science.
When Pavano arrives with the backing of oil and mining companies, he is shunned as a shill by the other scientists. He’s befriended by Cooper Gosling, a young Minnesota painter there via an artists fellowship. She listens to the climate arguments at some remove, especially when they get too “science-y.”
She’s more stressed about her lack of artistic inspiration. So when Pavano finagles a way for her to accompany him to a distant research station, she jumps at the chance for a new perspective. Consequences ensue.
Shelby, who lives in Minneapolis, keeps more than a few story lines thrumming here, yet a keen eye for character and a sharp ear for smartass dialogue keeps the strands straight. She also offers up a fair amount of science.
If there’s a hero here, it might be Bozer, a coarse construction worker in his tenth hitch at Pole. “You don’t come down here to commit suicide, honey,” he tells Cooper after her own avoidance techniques take a harrowing turn. “You come down here so you don’t.”
Bozer consistently and confidently engages the opposition, whether it’s the bureaucracy, his girlfriend, or the demons in his fellow Polies. He knows you can’t help someone by shutting them down. You can’t affirm the truth by barring other truth-seekers.
Kim Ode is a feature writer for the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @Odewrites
South Pole Station
By: Ashley Shelby.
Publisher: Picador, 360 pages, $26.
Events: Book launch, 7 p.m. July 10, Honey, 205 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls.; Literature Lovers Night Out, 7 p.m. July 13, Excelsior Bay Books, Excelsior, tickets $10; reading with Don Shelby, 7 p.m. July 17, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.